Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

Read Full Post »

I’m a supporter of a single-rate tax regime, especially if there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s why I like the flat tax.

But I’ve expressed concern about the national sales tax, even though it’s basically the same as a flat tax (the only real difference is that the flat tax takes a bite out of your income when it is earned, while the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent).

The reason for my skepticism is that I don’t trust politicians. I fear that they will adopt a sales tax, but never replace the income. As a result, we’ll wind up like Europe, with much bigger government.

And also much more red ink – even though politicians claim tax hikes and new taxes will lead to balanced budgets.

I’m not just being paranoid. Not only is this what occurred in Europe, the same thing is now happening in Japan.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal has to say about “reforms” to the value-added tax in the land of the rising sun.

Japan on Tuesday increased its consumption tax to 8% from 5%. An increase to 10% is written into the law for next year, and don’t imagine for a minute that this will be the last. Welcome to the value-added-tax ratchet, which only goes in one direction—up. Tokyo first imposed a 3% consumption tax in 1989, after politicians had tried for a decade to enact one. …The new tax was billed as part of a tax reform, but the reform never materialized.

And as I warned in a prior column, the VAT has become a recipe for bigger government in Japan.

The new tax didn’t solve Japan’s deficit woes, as the debt to GDP ratio climbed to 50%, so in 1997 politicians increased the rate to 5%. Again politicians promised the increase would be offset by income-tax reforms. Again the reform proved illusory. …The additional revenue still didn’t satisfy Tokyo’s spending ambitions, and debt has since climbed well above 200% of GDP despite the VAT increase. …So now the rate is going up again in the name of, you guessed it, shoring up government finances as the population ages.

The OECD likes this development, which is hardly a surprise, but it’s bad news for those of us who favor growth and opportunity.

Japan’s experience points up the broader political problem with a value-added tax wherever it has been imposed. Economists tout the VAT for generating revenue without creating disincentives to work and invest. But in practice the consumption levy merely becomes one more tax in addition to current taxes and thus one more claim by the political class on the private economy. …The lesson for tax reformers elsewhere, not least in America, is to beware the VAT because once it is imposed it is only going up.

And it’s worth noting that the Europeans also have been increasing the VAT in recent years.

Simply stated, this is a levy to finance bigger government.

I elaborate in my video on the VAT.

P.S. You can see some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I also very much recommend what George Will wrote about the value-added tax.

P.P.P.S. I’m also quite amused that the IMF accidentally provided key evidence against the VAT.

Read Full Post »

I’m frequently baffled at the stupidity of Republicans.

When they took control of Congress back in 1994, for instance, they had unrestricted ability to get rid of the bureaucrats that generated bad economic analysis at both the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office.

Yet notwithstanding more than a decade of congressional power, GOPers did almost nothing to neutralize the bureaucrats who produced shoddy research that helped the left push for more spending and higher taxes.

Sort of like a football team allowing the opposing coach to pick the refs and design game plans for both teams.

Another painful example is that Republicans never used their majority status to defund the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

This international bureaucracy is infamous for pushing policies to expand the power of government. That’s not too surprising since it’s dominated by European welfare states. But it is amazing that Republicans seem to think it’s perfectly fine to send about $100 million each year to subsidize the OECD’s agenda.

Particularly when the OECD so often pushes policies that are directly contrary to American interests.

It has allied itself with the nutjobs from the so-called Occupy movement to push for bigger government and higher taxes in the United States.

The bureaucrats are advocating higher business tax burdens, which would aggravate America’s competitive disadvantage.

The OECD is pushing a “Multilateral Convention” that is designed to become something akin to a World Tax Organization, with the power to persecute nations with free-market tax policy.

It supports Obama’s class-warfare agenda, publishing documents endorsing “higher marginal tax rates” so that the so-called rich “contribute their fair share.”

The OECD advocates the value-added tax based on the absurd notion that increasing the burden of government is good for growth and employment.

It even concocts dishonest poverty numbers to advocate more redistribution in the United States.

Let’s elaborate on the last item dealing with poverty in the United States. According to the OECD, poverty is more sever in the United States than it is in relatively poor nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Hungary.

Indeed, the bureaucrats in Paris even put together a chart showing how “bad” America ranks in this category.

But it’s all bunk. Utterly dishonest garbage. Here’s some of what I wrote last year on this topic.

…if you read the fine print, you may notice one itsy-bitsy detail. The chart isn’t a measure of poverty. Not even close. Indeed, the chart wouldn’t change if all of the people of any nation (or all nations) suddenly had 10 times as much income. That’s because the OECD is measuring is relative income distribution rather than relative poverty. And the left likes this measure because coerced redistribution automatically leads to the appearance of less poverty. Even if everybody’s income is lower!

But the OECD isn’t letting up. In a new “Society at a Glance” look at the United States last month, here’s what the OECD claimed.

The relative poverty rate in the U.S. is 17.4%, compared to an OECD average of 11.1%. Only Chile, Israel, Mexico and Turkey have higher poverty rates than the U.S.

But unlike in other publications, the OECD didn’t bother to include any fine print admitting that its poverty measure has nothing to do with poverty.

That’s grotesquely dishonest and morally corrupt.

And since we’re on the topic of corruption, let’s broaden our discussion. National Review’s Kevin Williamson has an article on the rampant corruption among elected officials.

But what caught my attention weren’t the parts about pro-gun control politicians trying to help sell weapons to terrorists. Instead, I especially appreciated the broader lesson he provides for readers.

James Madison famously observed that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But he also understood that men do not become angels once they win elections, become police, or are appointed to positions of power. Our constitutional order strikes an elegant balance between policing the non-angels outside of government and constraining the non-angels within government, setting the ambitions of the three branches against one another and subdividing the legislative branch against itself. …Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity — “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” — is the very modest ambition that conservatives aim for. Limited government is the tool by which government can be made to do good without necessarily being good, or being composed of good men. …The corruptibility of the political classes is fenced in by limiting the power of the political classes per se. You cannot expand the scope and scale of government without expanding in parallel the scope and scale of government corruption.

Amen to that. That’s the core message of this video I narrated, which explains that shrinking the size and scope of government is the only effective way to reduce corruption.

Remember the lesson of this superb poster: If more government is the answer, you’ve asked a very strange question.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2010, I shared a video that predicted a catastrophic end to the welfare state.

I said it was an example of “Libertarian Porn” because:

…it is designed for the dark enjoyment of people who think the government is destroying the nation. If you don’t like bloated government and statist intervention and you think that the policies being imposed by Washington are going to lead to hyperinflation and societal collapse, then you will get a certain level of grim satisfaction by watching the video.

While I also stated in that post that I thought the video was far too dour and pessimistic, I don’t automatically reject the hypothesis that the welfare state will lead to societal chaos.

UK RiotsIndeed, I’ve specifically warned that America might experience European-type disarray because of big government and I even wrote about which nations that might be good escape options if the welfare state causes our country to unravel.

Moreover, I’ve speculated about the possible loss of democracy in Europe and specifically said that people should have the right to be well armed just in case society goes you-know-where in a handbasket.

So I’m definitely not a Pollyanna.

I’ve given this background because here’s another video for those of you who revel in the glass being nine-tenths empty. It’s about the United Kingdom, but these numbers from the BIS, OECD, and IMF show that the long-term spending problem is equally severe in the United States.

Be warned, though, that it’s depressing as well as long. And I gather it’s also designed to sell a magazine, so you can ignore that (particularly if you’re not British).

Now that I’ve shared the video, I’ll add a couple of my own observations.

First and foremost, no country is past the point of no return, at least based on the numbers. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, or France. Politicians always have the option of reforming entitlements and restraining the burden of government spending. So long as they follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule over an extended period of time, they can dig out of the mess.

That’s why I’m a big fan of Switzerland’s spending cap, That policy, technically known as the debt brake, imposes a rolling cap on budgetary growth and has been very effective. Colorado also has a spending cap that has been somewhat effective in restraining the cost of the public sector.

My second observation, however, is that some nations may be past the psychological point of return. This is not easy to measure, but it basically means that there’s good reason to be pessimistic when the majority of citizens in a country think it’s morally acceptable to have their snouts in the public trough and to live off the labor of others. When you have too many people riding in the wagon (or riding in the party ship), then it’s difficult to envision how good policy is implemented.

Indeed, the video includes some discussion of how a growing number of people in the United Kingdom now live off the state. And if you add together the votes of people like NatailijaTraceyAnjem, Gina, and Danny, perhaps the United Kingdom has reached a grim tipping point. Especially since welfare spending has dramatically increased in recent years!

A third and final point about the video. I think it focuses too much on deficits and debt. Red ink is a serious issue, to be sure, but it’s very important to understand that too much borrowing is merely a symptom of too much spending.

P.S. On a totally separate matter, everyone should read the USA Today column by Glenn Reynolds. He explains how government is perverting our criminal justice system.

Here are some of the most important passages, but you should read the whole thing.

Here’s how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a “kitchen-sink” indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.

This is why, Glenn explains, there are very few trials. Almost everything gets settled as part of plea bargains.

But that’s not a good thing, particularly when there are no checks and balances to restrain bad behavior by the state.

…although there’s lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there’s basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to “get” people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it’s called “jury nullification,” and although everyone admits that it’s a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s subject to far less criticism, if it’s even noticed.

Here’s the bottom line.

…with today’s broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits. …The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn’t know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging and coercive plea-bargaining, means that where criminal law is concerned we don’t really have a judicial system as most people imagine it. Instead, we have a criminal justice bureaucracy that assesses guilt and imposes penalties with only modest supervision from the judiciary, and with very little actual accountability.

Glenn offers some possible answers.

…prosecutors should have “skin in the game” — if someone’s charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we’ve seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. …And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence. If our criminal justice system is to be a true justice system, then due process must attach at all stages. Right now, prosecutors run riot. That needs to change.

Amen to all that. And you can read more on this topic by clicking here.

The Obama years have taught us that dishonest people can twist and abuse the law for ideological purposes.

Obamacare rule of law cartoonWhether we’re talking about the corruption of the IRS, the deliberate disregard of the law for Obamacare, or the NSA spying scandal, the White House has shown that it’s naive to assume that folks in government have ethical standards.

And that’s also true for the law enforcement bureaucracy, as Glenn explained. Simply stated, people in government abuse power. And jury nullification, while a helpful check on misbehavior, only works when there is a trial.

Indeed, I’m now much more skeptical about the death penalty for many of the reasons Glenn discusses in his column. To be blunt, I don’t trust that politically ambitious prosecutors will behave honorably.

That’s why, regardless of the issue, you rarely will go wrong if you’re advocating fewer laws and less government power.

Read Full Post »

The headline of this post might not be completely honest. Indeed, if you asked me to grade the accuracy of my title, I’ll admit right away that it falls into the “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” category of mendacity.

Krugman WeatherBut I’m only prevaricating to set the stage for some satire about Keynesian economics.

But this satire is based on a very bizarre reality. Advocates of Keynesian economics such as Paul Krugman have claimed that war is stimulus for the economy and that it would be good if we were threatened by an alien invasion. As such, it doesn’t take too much imagination to think that conversations like this may have taken place inside the Obama White House.

Particularly since Keynes himself thought it would be good for growth if the government buried money in the ground.

So enjoy this satire from The Onion.

By the way, Krugman also said the 9-11 terrorist attacks would “do some economic good.”

So the folks at The Onion need to step it up if they want to keep pace.

Now let’s share a serious video.

I’ve written before about how the Food and Drug Administration’s risk-averse policies lead to needless deaths.

Econstories builds upon that hypothesis, using the Dallas Buyers Club to make excellent points about why markets are better than command-and-control regulation.

Very similar to what Steve Chapman wrote about bureaucracy, competency, and incentives.

By the way, the bureaucrats at the FDA also have engaged in pointless harassment of genetic testing companies, even though nobody claims there is even the tiniest shred of risk to health and safety.

And nobody will be surprised about the bureaucracy’s anti-smoking jihad.

But nothing exemplifies brainless bureaucracy more than the raid by the FDA’s milk police. Though the FDA’s strange condom regulations might be even more bizarre.

It’s hard to decide when bureaucracies do so many foolish things.

P.S. The prize for the craziest bit of red tape still belongs to Japan, where the government actually regulates providers of coffee enemas, though the Department of Agriculture’s rules for magic rabbits is a close competitor.

Read Full Post »

When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

Read Full Post »

Regular readers may have noticed that I generally say that advocates of big government are “statists.”

I could call them “liberals,” but I don’t like that using that term since the early advocates of economic and personal liberty were “classical liberals” such as Adam Smith, John Locke, and Jean-Baptiste Say. And proponents of these ideas are still called “liberals” in Europe and Australia.

I could call them “socialists,” but I don’t think that’s technically accurate since the theory is based on government ownership of the means of production. This is why I’ve been in the strange position of defending Obama when some folks have used the S word to describe him.

I could call them “fascists,” which Thomas Sowell explains is the most accurate way of describing the modern left’s economic ideology, but that term also implies racism. But while leftists sometimes support policies that hurt minorities, they’re not motivated by racial animus.

I could call them “corporatists,” and I actually have used that term on occasion, but I think it’s too narrow. It’s not really an ideology, but rather a description of the sleazy alliance of the left and big business, such as we saw for TARP and Wall Street, or Obamacare and Big Pharma.

I’m motivated to write about my favorite way of expressing opprobrium because I just read a very interesting column in the U.K.-based Telegraph by Tim Stanley, an American historian.

He delves into the issue of whether it’s right to call Hitler a socialist.

…the Nazis did call themselves National Socialists. But…labels can be misleading. …Hitler wasn’t a socialist became apparent within weeks of becoming Chancellor of Germany when he started arresting socialists and communists. He did this, claim some, because they were competing brands of socialism. But that doesn’t explain why Hitler defined his politics so absolutely as a war on Bolshevism… Marxism is defined by class war, and socialism is accomplished with the total victory of the Proletariat over the ruling classes. By contrast, Hitler offered an alliance between labour and capital in the form of corporatism… It is true that the economy was socialised in the latter part of the 1930s, but not for the sake of building socialism. It was to prepare for war. Politics came before economics in the fascist state to the degree that it’s hard to conceive of Hitler as a coherent economic thinker at all. …Marxism defines history as a class struggle. Hitler saw it as a racial conflict… he was sometimes prepared to use socialist economics to pursue his agenda.

These all seem to be valid points, but I wonder whether it makes a difference.

Tarantulas, black widows, and brown recluses are all different species of arachnids, but it’s also correct to say that they are all poisonous spiders.

And I sure as heck wouldn’t want any of them to bite me.

Similarly, socialism, Marxism, and fascism may have specific motivations and characteristics, but they’re all forms of statism.

And I definitely don’t want to acquiesce to any of those coercive ideologies.

Which seems to be Tim Stanley’s conclusion as well.

The moral lesson is that power corrupts everyone: Left, Right, men, women, gay, straight, black, white, religious, atheist. The best countries have constitutions that limit the government, cherish the private sphere and largely leave the individual to make their own mistakes.

Now let’s look at a real-world example of a country that is suffering because of statism.

Allister Heath of City A.M. in London explains what is happening in Venezuela.

IF you want to see how to destroy an economy and a society, look no further than Venezuela. …the country is on the verge of total collapse… Food is running out, as are other essentials, even though the country claims the world’s largest oil reserves. There are shortages of toilet paper and soap, empty shelves and massive crowds queuing for hours in front of supermarkets. …The reason? A brain-dead rejection of basic economics, and a hardline, anti-market approach of the worst possible kind. There are maximum prices, other prices controls, profit controls, capital controls, nationalisations, expropriations and every other statist, atavistic policy you can think of. An extreme left wing government has waged war on capitalism and won; and as ever, ordinary people are paying the price. …The lesson from all of that is clear. Socialism doesn’t work. Price controls don’t work. Stealing people’s property doesn’t work. Chasing away foreigners doesn’t work. Destroying the supply-side of an economy doesn’t work. …It is a spectacularly horrible case of what FA Hayek called the Road to Serfdom.

For all intents and purposes, Venezuela is sort of like France, but without the rule of law. Which means bad policies become catastrophic policies.

And Allister is right. It is ordinary people who suffer. Venezuela’s long-term experiment with statism has resulted in stagnation and chaos. Once one of the richest nations in Latin America, it is now falling behind nations that have liberalized.

The Venezuelan government can’t keep food on the shelves, and it is moving closer and closer to Cuban-style rationing of basic necessities.

And people familiar with the history of statist regimes won’t be surprised to learn that Venezuela also is disarming the citizenry.

P.S. One business leader got a lot of heat for observing that Obamanomics was more like fascism than socialism. And another caught a bunch of grief for using an analogy about tax hikes and the Nazi invasion of Poland.

If they used “statism” instead, they would have been more accurate and avoided criticism.

P.P.S. This image is a funny but accurate illustration of the difference between socialism and capitalism. And here’s a socialism-for-kids image, but it’s really a parody of Obama’s class-warfare mentality.

Read Full Post »

In recent weeks, I’ve pontificated on Obama’s spendthrift budget, Congressman Dave Camp’s timid tax reform plan, and the corrupt cronyism of Washington.

I got to elaborate on all these topics – and more – in this interview with Professor Glenn Reynolds, more widely known as Instapundit.

If there was an overall theme, it’s that President Obama’s statist agenda is not helping the country.

Other than my hair looking strange, I think this was a good interview.

But here’s a point I probably should have included when assessing the President’s performance. If you look at the Census Bureau’s data on median household income (adjusted for inflation), you’ll see that the median American is earning less during the Obama years. And that’s true whether you use 2008 or 2009 as the base year.

Median Household Income

Now let me provide three caveats on this data, two that help Obama and another that is less favorable.

1. First, if you look at the historical data from the Census Bureau, you’ll see that median household income is a lagging indicator. That means that incomes don’t improve in the first year or two of a recovery.

In other words, you can argue, with considerable justification, that Obama inherited bad numbers.

2. Second, median household income is an incomplete measure of living standards. If you peruse the data, you’ll see that median income for 2012 (the latest available year) is lower than it was the year Reagan left office.

I’m a big Reagan fan, so I’m tempted to say the country has lost ground since he left office, but that would be an exaggeration. We obviously have higher living standards today, notwithstanding the Census Bureau numbers.

3. But I’m not making excuses for Obama. My third and final caveat is that the median numbers don’t tell the full story. If you look at the Census Bureau’s numbers for various income groups, you’ll see that the only cohort that has enjoyed higher real income during the Obama years is….drum roll, please…the rich!

You read correctly. The bottom 20 percent have suffer lower incomes. The three middle-income quintiles have lost ground. Even the top 20 percent have lower median incomes. The only group that is ahead is the top 5 percent.

In other words, Obama may use lots of class-warfare rhetoric to pretend he’s on the side of ordinary people.

But his policies (TARPSolyndra, etc) have been enormously beneficial to the cronyists and insiders that have made the Washington metropolitan area so wealthy.

Here’s some of what Senator Portman of Ohio had to say about the topic.

It’s been five years since the experts said the recession was over, but for millions of Americans, it feels like it never ended. We’re living through the weakest economic recovery since World War II, and a lot of folks are struggling to make ends meet. Unemployment remains stubbornly high; the number of long-term unemployed is actually at record levels. But these statistics only tell half the story. Eleven million Americans have become so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work altogether. Poverty rates have gone up, salaries have gone down, with the average family now bringing home $4,000 less than they did just five years ago.

Just in case you doubt Portman’s remarks, here’s the chart I produced using data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

It shows every recovery since end of World War II. The red line is Obamanomics.

Hmmm….this is almost enough to make one think that maybe we should try free markets and small government instead.

P.S. This Gary Varvel cartoon provides a good synopsis of Obama’s economic policy.

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

I also like Varvel’s take on Obamacare, and here’s another one of his cartoons on Obamanomics.

Varvel is the best at exposing the spending-cut hoax in DC, as you can see from this sequester cartoon and this deficit reduction cartoon. This cartoon about Bernie Madoff and Social Security, however, is at the top of my list.

Read Full Post »

No matter how much I pontificate about Washington corruption, there’s no way I can get across the true extent of the DC establishment’s self-serving behavior.

Washington is rich because government is big and the beneficiaries of this system are enjoying their status as America’s new gilded class.

It’s even gotten to the point where children and other family members also put their hands in the cookie jar.

I guess we can call this a system of hereditary corruption. Heck, maybe we can even create hereditary titles for this new elite. The Duke of Pork. The Earl of Sleaze. The Marquise de Cronyism.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, check out these blurbs from a Daily Beast article.

Connected children of political families catching a break is something we Americans are plenty used to—there would be no Kennedy or Bush dynasties without the public’s acceptance… But it might be that Americans are less aware of political family power plays when they’re not accompanied by gripping and grinning and kissing our babies for cameras and votes. …“Members of Congress basically are profit centers for their entire families,” says Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The article cites examples of this unseemly process.

Nathan Daschle, son of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, …did a stint at a D.C. firm before heading to the Democratic Governor’s Association (where he eventually served as Executive Director), and now works for Clear Channel Media as its Executive Vice President for Political Strategy. …then there are the lobbyists—that professional amalgam of business and politics—the litany of which reads something like an Old Testament family tree. There’s Andy Blunt, son of Senator Roy Blunt and brother of former governor Matt Blunt; Andrew Coats, son of Senator Dan Coats; Scott Hatch, son of Senator Orrin Hatch; David Roberts, son of Senator Pat Roberts; Shantrel Brown Fields, daughter of Rep. Corinne Brown; Giliane Carter, daughter of Representative John Carter; Sean King, son of Rep. Peter King; Clark Mica, son of Rep. John Mica.

As you might expect, this incestuous system produces spectacular examples of wasteful and counterproductive spending.

…sometimes there is trouble in the paradise where business and politics and family meet. There’s the case of Brad Enzi, son of Mike, Senator from Wyoming. Enzi the younger has been overseeing the building of the Two Elk Power Plant in Wyoming for North American Power Group. …Senator Enzi pushed for Department of Energy funds to go towards clean coal research projects in his state and Brad Enzi’s company benefitted from them; it received nearly $10 million in funding to drill a well to study the site surrounding the plant, and Enzi himself earned $128,000 in compensation from the federal money. …Chaka Fattah Jr., son of Pennsylvania Congressman Chaka Fattah, has similarly felt the double-edged blade of intertwining family, business, and political ties. The management consulting company he founded was paid $450,000 by an education firm with lucrative contracts with the Philadelphia City School District—turns out Chaka’s father requested a $375,000 earmark for the firm from a 2009 transportation bill. Both father and son are currently under federal investigation.

Keep in mind, by the way, that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

For every bit of scandal and pork that gets publicized, you can be confident that there are hundreds of equally sordid deals that haven’t been exposed.

For all intents and purposes, big government in Washington has created a niche market for insiders who learn the specialized skill of transferring money from those who earned it to those with political pull.

And these insiders pass along this “skill” to their children.

…a hereditary specialized group of people who perform certain necessary social functions and because they have families, they’re going to gradually monopolize the functions they perform.” And in 2014, the place that’s increasingly being chosen as a place to call home by American “elites” happens to be Washington, D.C. The city’s greater metropolitan area boasts the largest number of “Super Zips”—those areas with the highest combined wealth and level of education—in the country.

They get the “super zips” while the rest of the country is treated as “super chumps.”

No wonder the Washington metropolitan area is now the richest part of the United States.

If that sounds like we’re becoming Argentina or some other cesspool of cronyism, then you understand the problem.

By the way, none of this should be interpreted to suggest that parents shouldn’t try to help their kids. Or even to give them some help joining the family business. That’s a normal part of life.

The problem exist when the “family business” is big government and income is obtained by facilitating the coercion and oppression of other people.

In a genuinely free market, by contrast, you get rich by serving other people.

P.S. Some people argue that the solution is to ban family members from lobbying or to otherwise impose restrictions on the political process. But until you deal with the underlying problem of Washington being a favor factory, all of these efforts will be akin to playing whack-a-mole.

This video explains.

P.P.S. On a totally separate issue, it appears that our right to keep and bear flamethrowers has been eroded in North Dakota.

Here are some excerpts from a Fargo news report.

Local resident Todd Fox has been detained for “reckless endangerment” and “illegal use of high-powered fire-breathing weaponry” for attacking snow with his flamethrower. …Fox stated that he was simply “fed up with battling the elements” and that he did not possess the willpower necessary to move “four billion tons of white bull [expletive deleted].” Police say that Fox surrendered his efforts immediately upon their arrival and that his front yard “looked like a hydrogen bomb had gone off.” They think he was just happy to be done with snow removal, even if it did mean a trip to jail.

I have two reactions to this story.

First, does Fargo really have a local ordinance governing the use of “high-powered fire-breathing weaponry”? I’m skeptical.

Second, isn’t this a great country? There probably aren’t many places in the world where citizens are allowed to own flamethrowers. Makes me proud to be American.

And we’re even allowed to own tanks and machine guns.

On the other hand, we do have a problem letting children possess pencils and pop tarts, so we obviously have some flaws to fix.

Read Full Post »

One of my goals is to convince people that even small differences in long-run growth can have a powerful impact on living standards and societal prosperity.

In other words, the economy is not a fixed pie. The right policies, such as free markets and small government, can create a better life for everybody.

And bad policy, needless to say, can have the opposite impact.

Very few people realize, for instance, that Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations at the end of World War II, but interventionist policies have weakened growth and caused the country to plummet in the rankings.

Hong Kong, by contrast, had a relatively poor economy at the end of the war, but now is one of the globe’s most prosperous jurisdictions.

If you want more examples, check out this chart showing how North Korea and South Korea have diverged over time.

Or how about the chart showing how Chile has out-performed other major Latin American economies.

This comparison of living standards in the United States and Europe also is very compelling.

Here’s a simple guide to highlight the difference between weak growth and strong growth. It shows how long it takes a nation to double economic output depending on annual growth.

As you can see, a nation with 1 percent growth (think Italy) will have to wait 70 years before the economic pie doubles in size.

But a nation that grows 4 percent or faster each year (think Singapore) will double GDP in less than 20 years.

Years to Double GDP

So why am I plowing through all this material?

My answer is simple, but depressing. I’m worried that the United States is becoming more like Europe. During the Bush-Obama years, we’ve seen big increases in the size and scope of government, and it’s no surprise that we’re now suffering from anemic economic performance.

That’s the first point I made in this interview with Michelle Fields of PJTV.

Much of the material in the interview will be familiar to regular readers, but a few points deserve some emphasis.

I say that America becoming more like Europe isn’t the end of the world, but I should elaborate. What I meant is that we can survive 2 percent growth instead of 3 percent growth. We could even survive 1 percent growth.

But if we continue on the current path of ever-growing government and combine that with an aging population and poorly designed entitlement programs, then we will see the end of the world. At least in the sense of fiscal crisis and economic collapse.

All the points I make about jobs, employment, labor force participation, unemployment insurance and disability are simply different ways of saying that it’s not good for the economy when politicians continuously make dependency more attractive than work.

If you want to know more about why the so-called stimulus was a failure, my article in The Federalist is a nice place to start.

The libertarian fantasy world of a small central government is a very good goal, but it’s still possible to make significant progress if politicians follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

P.S. You may recognize the host because she narrated a very good video for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. Michelle explained how the big-government policies of Hoover and Roosevelt deepened and extended the Great Depression.

She also exposed rich leftists as complete hypocrites in this interview.

P.P.S. Since I mentioned above that South Korea has far surpassed North Korea, I should share this powerful nighttime picture of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea v South Korea

Gee, maybe capitalism is better than statism after all.

Unless, of course, you think there’s something really nice about North Korea to offset South Korea’s economic advantages.

Such as malnutrition or enslavement. Or a small carbon footprint, which led some nutjobs to rank Cuba far above America.

Read Full Post »

Did you sing Happy Birthday?

The nation just “celebrated” the fifth anniversary of the signing of the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Political Cartoons by Nate Beelermore commonly referred to as the “stimulus.”

This experiment in Keynesian economics was controversial when it was enacted and it’s still controversial today.

The Obama Administration is telling us that the law was a big success, but I have a far more dour assessment of the President’s spending binge.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the topic for The Federalist.

The White House wants us to think the legislation was a success, publishing a report that claims the stimulus “saved or created about 6 million job-years” and “raised the level of GDP by between 2 and 3 percent from late 2009 through mid-2011.”

Sounds impressive, right?

Unfortunately, these numbers for jobs and growth are based on blackboard models that automatically assume rosy outcomes.

Here’s how I explain it in the article.

…how, pray tell, did the White House know what jobs and growth would have been in a hypothetical world with no stimulus? The simple answer is that they pulled numbers out of thin air based on economic models using Keynesian theory. …Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. They build models that assume government spending is good for the economy and they assume that there are zero costs when the government takes money from the private sector. That type of model then automatically generates predictions that bigger government will “stimulate’ growth and create jobs. The Keynesians are so confident in their approach that they’ll sometimes even admit that they don’t look at real world numbers. And that’s what the White House did in its estimate. The jobs number (or, to be more technical, the job-years number) is built into the model. It’s not a count of actual jobs.

In the real world, however, you can count jobs.

As part of my article, I looked at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website and compared the current recovery to all business cycle expansions in the post-World War II era.

And I did that comparison for jobs and growth. Here are the numbers for the labor market. The current recovery is in red, and you can see that the nation is “stumbling through the second-worst recovery for job creation in the post-WWII era.”

Minn Fed Recovery Jobs Data

And here are the Minneapolis Fed’s numbers for growth.

It doesn’t seem possible, but GOP performance has been even worse than job performance. We are mired in stagnation. As I noted, “the current recovery (red line) is the weakest expansion since World War II.”

Minn Fed Recovery GDP Data

In other words, it’s very difficult to argue – looking at the numbers – that the President’s main economic initiative was a success.

So why did it flop?

I pontificate in the article, pointing out three specific problems with Keynesian economics. I start with the elementary observation that the theory is based on the notion that you can become richer by taking money out of one pocket and putting it in another pocket.

…there is an “opportunity cost” when government borrows money and spends it. Resources are diverted from the productive sector of the economy. This might not be a problem if government spent money wisely, but stimulus schemes tend to reward interest groups with the most political clout. So instead of outlays for physical and human capital, which at least theoretically might improve the economy’s productive capacity, the White House directed the bulk of the stimulus to redistribution programs and handouts to state governments.

I then make a critical observation about how you shouldn’t try to solve one set of bad government policies with another layer of bad policy.

…the Keynesians don’t seem to appreciate that recessions generally are the result of bad government policies – such as inflation, housing subsidies, etc – that lead to fundamental and unsustainable economic imbalances. Unfortunately, more government spending often is designed to prop up these imbalances, which can create a longer and more painful period of adjustment.

Political Cartoons by Eric AllieBut the clincher, at least for most people, is the simple fact that Keynesianism doesn’t work.

But the biggest problem with Keynesianism is that the real-world evidence is so unfriendly. Consider, for instance, that the White House claimed that the unemployment would never climb above 8 percent if the stimulus was adopted. The following chart shows the actual unemployment projection put together by the Obama Administration, but modified to show the actual monthly unemployment rates the country experienced. …And that’s just the tip of the stimulus iceberg. Keynesian economics has a long track record of failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked this century for either Bush or Obama.

And guess what? I’m going to make a very sad prediction that we’ll get more Keynesian economics in the future, but it’s easy to predict right now that these future spending binges will fail just like previous stimulus schemes have flopped.

P.S. Here’s my video on Keynesian economics and here’s my video on Obama’s failed stimulus.

P.P.S. If you’d rather laugh than hear my voice, my favorite cartoons on Keynsianism can be viewed here and here.

Read Full Post »

When I give speeches around the country, I often get asked whether it’s time to give up.

More specifically, has America reached a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency and too few people creating wealth and pulling the wagon in the right direction?

These questions don’t surprise me, particularly since my speeches frequently include very grim BIS, OECD, and IMF data showing that the long-run fiscal problem in the United States is larger than it is in some nations that already are facing fiscal crisis.

But that doesn’t mean I have a good answer. I think there is a tipping point, to be sure, but I’m not sure whether there’s a single variable that tells us when we’ve reached the point of no return.

Is it when government spending consumes 50 percent of economic output? That would be a very bad development if the burden of government spending reached that level, but it’s not necessarily fatal. Back in the early 1990s, the public sector was that big in Canada, yet policy makers in that country were able to restrain budgetary growth and put the country on a positive path. Sweden is another nation that has turned the corner. Government spending peaked at 67 percent of GDP in the early 1990s, but is now down to 47 percent of GDP after years of free-market reforms.

Is it when a majority of households are getting government handouts? That’s also a worrisome development, especially if those folks see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But taking a check from Uncle Sam doesn’t automatically mean a statist mindset. As one of my favorite people opined, “some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.”

Is it when a majority of people no longer pay income taxes, leaving a shrinking minority to bear all the burden of financing government? It’s not healthy for society when most people think government is “free,” particularly if they perceive an incentive to impose even higher burdens on those who do pay. And there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of the tax burden is borne by the top 10 percent. There’s little evidence, though, that the rest of the population thinks there’s no cost to government – perhaps because many of them pay heavy payroll taxes.

I explore these issues in this interview with Charles Payne.

The main takeaway from the interview is that the tipping point is not a number, but a state of mind. It’s the health of the nation’s “social capital.”

So for what it’s worth, the country will be in deep trouble if and when the spirit of self-reliance becomes a minority viewpoint. And the bad news is that we’re heading in that direction.

The good news is that we’re not close to the point of no return. There is some polling data, for instance, showing that Americans still have a much stronger belief in liberty than their European counterparts.

And we’ve even made a small bit of progress against big government in the past few years.

I speculated in the interview that we probably have a couple of decades to save the country, but it will become increasingly difficult to make the necessary changes – such as entitlement reform and welfare decentralization – as we get closer to 2020 and 2030.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd if those changes don’t occur…?

That’s a very grim subject. I fully understand why some Americans are thinking about the steps they should take to protect their families if reforms don’t occur and a crisis occurs.

Indeed, this to me is one of the most compelling arguments against gun control. If America begins to suffer the chaos and disarray that we’ve seen in nations such as Greece, it’s better to be well-armed.

Though maybe there will be some nations that remain stable as the world’s welfare states collapse. And if emigration is your preferred option, I’d bet on Australia.

But wouldn’t it be better to fix what’s wrong and stay in America?

Read Full Post »

The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death,” but the same can’t be said of Washington, DC.

The bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians, contractors, insiders, cronyists, and influence peddlers have rigged the system so that they get rich by diverting money from people in the productive sector of the economy.

How bad is the disconnect between Washington and real America?

Well, according to Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index, people in every state have a negative outlook.

But there is one outpost of giddy prosperity, and that’s the District of Columbia, where residents have a 20-point gap compared to the most optimistic (or, to be more accurate, least pessimistic) state and a whopping 35-point gap with the average American.

Gallup Confidence DC

If you’re a glass-half-full person, there is a tiny sliver of good news in the new Gallup report.

It turns out that DC is not as fat and happy as it was one year ago, and the likely reason is that the federal Leviathan got put on a modest diet.

The District of Columbia (+19) is the clear outlier in economic confidence, having the only positive reading for 2013 and well above the readings for even the most optimistic states. Its confidence has taken a hit, however, since 2012, when its index was +29. Likely factors in the 10-point drop include October’s federal government shutdown as well as the sequestration spending cuts that occurred earlier in the year.

This explains, of course, why lobbyists were so bitterly opposed to the sequester. It reduced the money flow to Washington, and that meant less of our money to be shared by looter class that dominates the DC establishment.

Unfortunately, the establishment ultimately prevailed and they weakened the sequester as part of the Murray-Ryan tax-hike budget deal.

So don’t be surprised if Washington’s Economic Confidence Index is higher when new numbers are released next year.

And that means that we’ll be one step closer to being another Argentina, a nation on the decline because a corrupt elite uses the coercive power of government to obtain undeserved and unearned wealth.

And the most depressing sign that this already is happening to the United States is that so many of America’s richest communities are now part of the Washington metropolitan area.

P.S. I’m a big fan of Australia. Their private Social Security system is a huge success, and I’ve even suggested that it might be the best place to go if America suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

But that doesn’t mean its government isn’t capable of squandering money in stupendous fashion. Check out this blurb from an Australian news report.

A refrigerator lightbulb retailing for about $3 at a hardware store ended up costing a far north Queensland state school almost $500 after Queensland’s Public Works Department sent an electrician to install it in a teacher’s government-owned home. Doomadgee State School, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, was billed $200 for labour alone after the teacher was told workplace health and safety regulations prevented any staff member from buying and replacing the bulb themselves

This sounds even crazier than some of the absurd examples of waste that I listed last month.

And since I’m in the uncharacteristic position of beating up on Australia, you may as well click here and here to see other examples of government stupidity Down Under.

Though, to be fair, at least the Aussies manage to involve sex when trying to bilk the workplace compensation system.

Read Full Post »

Over the years, I’ve shared many charts, graphs, and tables to help people understand that the welfare state is fundamentally unsustainable.

And, assuming there’s not genuine entitlement reform, many of these fiscal estimates show that the United States has a very perilous future.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States is in worse shape than every nation other than Japan and the United Kingdom.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a bigger long-run fiscal problem than all countries other than New Zealand and Japan.

And according to International Monetary Fund estimates of both future spending increases and the need for reform, no nation has a bigger problem than the United States.

So do all these numbers mean the United States is really in worse shape than basket cases such as Italy, Spain, Japan, France, and Greece?

Yes and no. I realize that answer makes me sound like a politician, but it is  hard to answer that question because America’s grim long-run numbers are largely a function of rapidly rising health care spending.

And if you assume that Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare are left unreformed, then the budgets for these programs will eat up an ever-larger share of our economy and we’ll eventually suffer a fiscal collapse.

However, if you assume that these programs at some point get reformed (and it better be the right kind of reform), then the long-run outlook is considerably less severe.

But notice that I wrote “less severe.” That’s because we still have a demographic issue. Any type of pay-as-you-go welfare state becomes increasingly expensive when there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young workers.

This is why new projections from the Pew Research Center are so sobering. They show the change in age dependency ratio between now and 2050.

As you can see, we currently have about 50 young or old people for every 100 working-age people. By 2050, however, there will be 66 dependents for every 100 working-age people. And most of that added dependency will be caused by an aging population, not more children.

Age Dependency Ratio Pew

But here’s the good news. Compared to nations such as Spain and Japan, we’re in pretty good shape. Or, to be more accurate, we don’t face as deep of a problem. Indeed, it’s hard to see how those nations will survive.

Same with South Korea and Italy.

Even Germany has a very difficult future. Its welfare state may not be as bloated as some other nations in Europe, and the work ethic may be stronger than most other European countries, but as I already explained, any welfare state becomes unsustainable without new workers to pay taxes to support the dependent class.

In other words, demographics can be destiny. Look at this data on the nations with the lowest fertility rates. You’ll notice that Germans are not reproducing. And the same is true of the Japanese, Italians, and South Koreans (Spain is in 191st place, so they also aren’t having many kids).

Fertility Rate by Nation

I don’t know where this will lead, but it won’t be pretty. Simply stated, the welfare states in these nations will have to be reformed.

But how does that happen in countries where people have been told for decades that they have a “human right” to freebies from the government?

I fear that European nations are going to suffer some major dislocations. And as this Michael Ramirez cartoon suggests, the same problem could happen in America.

Let’s close with some optimism. You’ll notice that two of the four jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates in the entire world are Hong Kong and Singapore. Yet there’s no major long-run fiscal crisis in those places.

Why? Because they have “pre-funded” retirement systems. In other words, they have personal retirement accounts instead of tax-and-transfer entitlement systems.

The moral of the story is that demographics can be destiny, but it doesn’t have to be.

Something to keep in mind next time there’s a discussion of Social Security reform.

P.S. Considering the high levels of pulchritude in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, I’m mystified that there’s so little reproduction in those nations. Maybe I should volunteer to help out?

Read Full Post »

Early last year, with the sequester about to begin, President Obama stated that “these cuts are not smart, they are not fair, they will hurt our economy, they will add hundreds of thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls.”

He made this statement because Keynesian theory says government spending can boost “aggregate demand” and goose an economy. So less government spending obviously must be bad for growth.

Then, in October, Obama claimed that the partial government shutdown “inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy” and also asserted that, “every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth.”

This statement also was based on the notion that government spending is a form of “stimulus” for economic performance. So anything that slows spending must be a downer for the economy and job creation.

The President had good reasons to worry, at least based on the aforementioned Keynesian perspective. The burden of government spending declined in 2013, both in nominal terms and as a share of economic output.

In other words, the sequester and the partial shutdown did exactly what the President warned about.

So did this mean the economy under-performed? Before we look at the data, I’m going to take a wild guess and predict just the opposite.

Simply stated, you don’t get more growth by expanding the size and scope of government. Here’s what I wrote last year about Keynesian fiscal policy.

Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. You build a model that assumes government spending is good for the economy and you assume that there are zero costs when the government diverts money from the private sector. With that type of model, you then automatically generate predictions that bigger government will “stimulate’ growth and create jobs. Heck, sometimes you even admit that you don’t look at real world numbers. Which perhaps explains why Keynesian economics has a long track record of failure. …The ongoing damage of counterproductive government outlays is much larger and more serious than the transitory costs of redeploying resources when spending is reduced. And overseas borrowing at best creates illusory growth that will be more than offset when the bills come due. Ultimately, the real-world evidence is probably the clincher for most people. As noted above, it’s hard to find a successful example of Keynesian spending.

Now let’s look at some real-world data.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the economy finally experienced some semi-decent growth in 2013, leading the editors to opine that less government leaves more resources in the productive sector of the economy.

Thursday’s news of 3.2% growth in the fourth quarter of 2013 was greeted with cheers and relief. The economy has now grown at 2.5% or faster for three quarters, and the pace in the last six months is the fastest since 2003-2004…The best news is that growth all came from private spending and investment, not the artificial high of unsustainable government spending. The official government contribution to growth was a negative 0.9% due to falling defense outlays and the federal budget sequester. The national-income accounts have a bias that treats government spending as a net contributor to growth even when it’s wasted. Remember how the Keynesians predicted that less spending would mean slower overall growth? Maybe the opposite is true: When government shrinks, the private economy has more money and room to expand.

I obviously agree with these sentiments, but let me augment the passage from the WSJ editorial with a few additional comments.

1. There is a bias in some of the government data. Or, to be more accurate, some data is presented in ways that lead some folks to make sloppy assumptions about government spending contributing to growth. That’s why I prefer looking at how national income is earned (GDI data) rather than how national income is allocated (GDP data).

2. When the burden of government spending shrinks, the economy expands because labor and capital will be used more efficiently. Simply stated, those resources are far more likely to be utilized productively when they’re allocated on the basis of market forces rather than political deal-making.

3. And let’s not forget to add an important caveat that we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from a quarter or two of data, particularly when there are many factors that determine economic performance.

That being said, there certainly seems to be lots of evidence showing that bigger government is counterproductive and smaller government enhances growth.

We have good evidence, for instance, of nations growing faster when government outlays are constrained, including Canada in the 1990s and the United States during both the Reagan years and Clinton years.

And the Baltic nations imposed genuine spending cuts in recent years and are now doing much better than other European countries that relied on either Keynesian spending or the tax-hike version of austerity.

But if you think those anecdotes are inadequate, you can review some scholarly research on the negative impact of excessive government spending from international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Central Bank. And since most of those organizations lean to the left, these results should be particularly persuasive.

Moreover, you can find similar findings in the work of scholars from all over the world, including the United States, Finland, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

Let’s close with a couple of encore performances. First here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

And here’s my video on Obama’s failed stimulus.

Hmmm…maybe, just maybe, politicians should obey the Golden Rule.

Read Full Post »

Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.

I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.

My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.

Moreover, my Golden Rule explicitly targets the spending side of the budget. And I also came up with a “Bob Dole Award” to mock those who mistakenly dwell on deficits.

With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.

Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.

By the way, I have mixed feelings about the final sentence in that excerpt. Yes, Republicans oftentimes have displayed grotesque levels of fiscal irresponsibility. Heck, just look at the new farm bill. Or the vote on the Export-Import Bank. Or the vote on housing subsidies. Or…well, you get the point.

On the other hand, GOPers have voted for three consecutive years in favor of a budget that restrains the growth of federal spending, in large part because it includes much-needed reforms to major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

But Republican inconsistency isn’t our focus today.

I want to address other parts of Samuelson’s column that left a bad taste in my mouth.

He argues that you can’t balance the budget merely by cutting discretionary programs. That’s technically untrue, but it’s an accurate assessment of political reality.

I’m much more worried about his assertion that you can’t balance the budget even if entitlement spending also is being addressed.

Let’s look at what he wrote and then I’ll explain why he’s wrong.

Eliminating many programs that are arguably marginal — Amtrak, subsidies for public broadcasting and the like — would not produce enough savings to balance the budget. The reason: Spending on Social Security, Medicare and other health programs… But even plausible benefit trims for affluent retirees would still leave deficits. There would still be a need for tax increases.

This is wrong. Not just wrong, but demonstrably inaccurate.

The Ryan budget, for instance, balanced the budget in 2023. Without a single penny of tax hikes.

Senator Rand Paul and the Republican Study Committee also have produced balanced budget plans. Even as scored by the statists at the Congressional Budget Office.

By the way, you don’t even need to cut spending to balance the budget. Spending cuts would be desirable, of course, but the key to eliminating red ink is simply making sure that government spending climbs at a slower rate than revenues.

And since revenues are expected to grow by about 6 percent per year, it shouldn’t take advanced knowledge of mathematics to realize that the deficit will fall if spending grows by less than 6 percent annually.

Indeed, we could balance the budget as early as 2018 if spending merely was restrained so that the budget grew at the rate of inflation.

But never forget that the goal of fiscal policy should be shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, not fiscal balance.

Ask yourself the following questions. If $1 trillion floated down from Heaven and into the hands of the IRS, would that alter in any way the argument for getting rid of wasteful and corrupt parts of the federal leviathan, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

If the politicians had all that extra money and the budget was balanced, would that mean we could – or should – forget about entitlement reform?

If there was no red ink, would that negate the moral and economic imperative of ending the welfare state?

In other words, the first part of Samuelson’s column is right. We need a debate about “the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving.”

But we’re not going to come up with a good answer if we don’t understand basic fiscal facts.

Read Full Post »

One of the many differences between advocates of freedom and supporters of statism is how they view “rights.”

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.”

Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you (as explained here by America’s second-worst President). Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

Sometimes, the statists become very creative in their definition of rights.

You may laugh at these examples, particularly the ones that focus on seemingly trivial issues.

But don’t laugh too hard, because our friends on the left are busy with very grandiose plans for more “positive liberty.”

The EU Observer reports on efforts in Europe to create expanded rights to other people’s money.

Austerity programmes agreed with the troika of international lenders (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) are in breach of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, according to a German legal expert. …under the EU charter of fundamental rights, a legal text which became binding for member states in 2009, several austerity measures enshrined in the MoUs can be fought in courts. …His study highlights that the MoUs “have seriously limited the autonomy of employers and trade unions to negotiate wages.” …Education and health care reforms prescribed in the memorandums are also questionable because they are focusing too much on cutting budgets, he said. …He noted that the concept of “financial stability” was put above all other considerations. “But financial stability cannot be achieved without social stability,” he said.

But it’s not just one oddball academic making these claims.

…the Council of Europe’s social rights committee noted that public policies since 2009 have been unable to stem a generalised increase in poverty on the continent. The committee identified some 180 violations of European Social Charter provisions on access to health and social protection across 38 European countries. In the bailed-out countries, the committee found several breaches – particularly in terms of wages and social benefits. Ireland was found in breach of the social charter for not ensuring the minimum levels of sickness, unemployment, survivor’s, employment injury and invalidity benefits. Greece and Cyprus have “inadequate” minimum unemployment, sickness, maternity and old age benefits, as well as a restrictive social security system. Spain also pays too little to workers on sick leave.

This crazy thinking also exists in the United States. A former Carter Administration official, now a law professor at Georgetown, has written that countries with good policy must change their systems in order to enable more tax revenue in nations with bad policy.

Do states like Switzerland, which provide a tax haven for wealthy citizens of developing countries, violate internationally recognized human rights? …bank secrecy has a significant  human rights impact if governments of developing countries are deprived of resources needed to meet basic economic rights guaranteed by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. …The Covenant explicitly recognizes individual rights to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11); health care, clean water, and sanitation (Article 12); and education (Article 13). The Covenant also imposes obligations on member states to implement these rights.

And the right to redistribution isn’t just part of the U.N. mission.

There’s also a European set of Maastricht Principles which supposedly obligates nations to help each expand the burden of government.

Articles 19 and 20 of The Maastricht Principles call on states to “refrain from conduct which nullifies or impairs the enjoyment and exercise of economic . . . rights of persons outside their territories . . . or which impairs the ability of another State to comply with that State’s . . . obligations as regards economic rights.” …recognizing the fact that secrecy for offshore accounts makes it difficult for developing countries to implement Covenant obligations. It therefore seems indisputable that offshore accounts impede the fulfillment of internationally recognized human rights.

You may be thinking that all this sounds crazy. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s insane to push global schemes for bigger government at the very point when the welfare state is collapsing. And you’re right.

You may be thinking that it’s absurd to trample national sovereignty in pursuit of bad policy. And you’re right.

And you may be thinking this is a complete bastardization of what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind. And you’re right.

But you probably don’t understand that this already is happening. The IRS’s awful FATCA legislation, for instance, is basically designed for exactly the purpose of coercing other nations into enforcing bad American tax policy.

Even more worrisome is the OECD’s Orwellian Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which is best viewed as a poisonous acorn that will grow into a deadly World Tax Organization oak tree.

P.S. And the Obama Administration already is pushing policies to satisfy the OECD’s statist regime. The IRS recently pushed through a regulation that says American banks have to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law.

P.P.S. Statists may be evil, but they’re not stupid. They understand that tax havens and tax competition are a threat to big government.

Read Full Post »

I don’t like government bureaucrats.

Actually, let me re-phrase that statement. I know lots of people who work for different agencies in Washington and most of them seem like decent people.

So maybe what I really want to say is that I’m not a big fan of government bureaucracies and the results they generate. Why?

Because a bloated government means overpaid bureaucrats, both at the federal level and state level (and in other nations as well).

Because inefficient bureaucracies enable loafing and bad work habits.

Because being part of the government workforce even encourages laziness!

And it may even be the case that government bureaucracies attract dishonest people. A story in the L.A. Times reveals that there’s a correlation between cheating and a desire to work for the government.

Here are some excerpts.

College students who cheated on a simple task were more likely to want government jobs, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania found in a study of hundreds of students in Bangalore, India. Their results, recently released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest that one of the contributing forces behind government corruption could be who gets into government work in the first place. …Researchers ran a series of experiments with more than 600 students finishing up college in India. In one task, students had to privately roll a die and report what number they got. The higher the number, the more they would get paid. Each student rolled the die 42 times. …Cheating seemed to be rampant: More than a third of students had scores that fell in the top 1% of the predicted distribution, researchers found. Students who apparently cheated were 6.3% more likely to say they wanted to work in government, the researchers found.

I’m not surprised. Just as the wrong type of people often are attracted to politics, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that less-than-admirable folks sometimes are attracted to jobs in the bureaucracy.

But I don’t want to draw too many conclusions from this research.

The study looked at people in India and that nation’s government is infamous for rampant corruption.

However, if you look at how America scores in that regard (corruption measures are included in both Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom), the problem is much less severe.

So even though I’m willing to believe that bureaucrats in America are more prone to bad habits than their private-sector counterparts, I don’t think many of them decide to get government jobs in the expectation that they can extract bribes.

Indeed, I would guess that the average American bureaucrat is far more honest than the average American politician.

That’s damning with faint praise, I realize, but it underscores an important point that the real problem is big government. That’s what enables massive corruption in Washington.

P.S. Switching gears, I’ve written a couple of times about the intrusive and destructive Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. Well, we have some good news on that front. The Republican National Committee has endorsed the law’s repeal. I don’t want to pretend that’s a momentous development and I even told Reuters that the GOP may only be taking this step for narrow political reasons.

Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said: “It’s hard to imagine an issue this obscure playing a visible role in elections … It is making overseas Americans far more sympathetic to (Republicans) and could have an impact on fundraising.”

That being said, I’m more than happy when politicians happen to do the right thing simply because it’s in their self interest. And if we can eventually undo FATCA and enable more tax competition, that’s good news for America and the rest of the world.

P.P.S. And here’s another positive update on a topic we’ve examined before. Governor Rick Perry of Texas has joined a growing list of people who are having second thoughts about the War on Drugs. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the Washington Post.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) on Thursday voiced support for softening penalties for marijuana use, and touted his work moving in the direction of decriminalization. “After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade,” Perry said, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

He joins a growing list of people – such as John Stossel, Gary Johnson, John McCainMona Charen, Pat Robertson, Cory Booker, and Richard Bransonwho are recognizing that it’s foolish to give government massive amounts of power and money simply to stop people from doing dumb things to themselves.

But maybe you disagree with all those people and would rather be on the same side as Hillary Clinton.

And make life easier for the folks in this cartoon.

P.P.P.S. I’ve written before about how leftists always criticize so-called tax havens, even though rich statists are among the biggest beneficiaries of these low-tax jurisdictions.

President Obama, for instance, has been so critical of tax havens that he’s been caught making utterly dishonest statements on the topic.

But I guess the President’s opposition to tax competition is less important than his desire to prop up Obamacare. Look at some of what’s been reported by Bloomberg.

…the job of taking over construction of HealthCare.gov, which failed miserably when it debuted in October, is going to Accenture Plc, which switched its place of incorporation in 2009 to Ireland from Bermuda. …Accenture has endured so much criticism over the years for its use of tax havens that it even has a disclosure in its annual report warning investors to expect as much. …Accenture’s roots date back to a once-iconic American business, which helps explain why it’s gotten a lot of heat for incorporating in tax havens since spinning off.

By the way, it makes sense for Accenture to be domiciled in Bermuda rather than the United States.

P.P.P.P.S. On a personal note, I’m down in Florida for my first softball tournament of the year and I’m happy to report that I managed to put one over the fence.

Tampa HRHitting home runs has become a distressingly infrequent event as I’ve gotten older (I’m playing in a tourney for the 55-and-up crowd), and I like to memorialize it when it happens just in case it’s the last time.

So forgive me if I engage in Walter Mitty-style fantasizing. Maybe, just maybe, the Yankees will call with a contract offer.

Wait, who am I kidding?!?

That’s even less likely than Obamacare succeeding. Or politicians surrendering some of their power by enacting a flat tax.

I’m doomed to be a policy wonk for the rest of my life.

Read Full Post »

When I posted a video about “libertarian porn” back in 2010, readers presumably were either relieved or disappointed that there was no nudity.

Heck, even my libertarian sex jokes don’t involve sex, so I doubt I’ll be in much demand at comedy clubs.

I may get the same reaction today, because we’re going to have a discussion – but only G-rated – about what our British friends are referring to as “poverty porn.”

More specifically, that’s the term that’s being used for television reality shows in the United Kingdom that expose welfare fraud. Here are some excerpts from a story in U.S. News & World Report.

A shoplifter, a recovering drug addict and a young couple barely able to feed their kids are among the stars of “Benefits Street” — a smash hit reality show featuring welfare recipients that has stirred up a storm of controversy in Britain. The program zooms in on a rough Birmingham street where 9 out of 10 people are said to live off state payouts, chronicling over five episodes the lives of jobless neighbors as they struggle with their daily problems. …Britain’s welfare state has long been a subject of pride among many Britons, but these days attitudes toward benefits have hardened — and polls suggest that support for pouring taxpayer money into welfare, especially for the young, is at a record low. British tabloids are replete with hysteria stories about unemployed people buying flat-screen TVs and designer goods using welfare funds. And “Benefits Street” is the hottest in a growing genre of reality shows about the poor that has been dubbed “poverty porn” because of its sensationalist nature. Even the sober BBC has jumped on the bandwagon with a documentary called “Britain on the Fiddle,” which set out to catch benefits fraudsters in the act on camera. …The “poverty porn” trend comes as Prime Minister David Cameron’s government tries to overhaul the benefits system.

By the way, if you want examples of the “hysteria stories” in the “tabloids,” check out NatailijaTraceyAnjem, and Gina and Danny.

You’ll understand why I wrote that, “if there was a welfare Olympics, the U.K. would have a lot more medals.”

Anyhow, the good news is that politicians in the United Kingdom are finally taking some measures to rein in the welfare state. I don’t know if it’s because television programs are exposing waste and fraud, but it’s clearly good news since welfare spending has exploded over the past 10-plus years in the UK.

Here’s part of a report in the Telegraph.

In a speech that seeks to build on “extraordinary” jobless figures, the Work and Pensions Secretary will promise to end the “twilight world” of entire communities that are reliant on benefits. …Mr Duncan Smith will warn that there are still benefits-dependent areas that “for the most part remain out of sight”. Sources suggested that this is a reference to communities such as the one seen on Benefits Street, a Channel 4 documentary, and said that he was on “a crusade to rescue Benefits Street Britain”. “I have long believed there is no kindness in a benefits system that traps people, leaving them in a twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create,” Mr Duncan Smith will say. …A Conservative government wants to ensure that welfare is “a journey that people are on, rather than a destination where they stay”, he will add.

I’ll withhold judgement on whether the squishy Cameron government actually is doing something good in this area, but I’m glad that there’s at least pressure for positive change.

Which is why we need some “poverty porn” in America.

Maybe that would be a wake-up call for our politicians on how the welfare state creates a poverty trap and erodes social capital (something that a few honest liberals have acknowledged).

P.S. In an example of sloppy/biased journalism, the U.S. News article states that “The show has struck a strong chord in a nation…still reeling from its most brutal austerity measures in a generation, with basic public services trimmed drastically.” Why is that passage biased and/or sloppy? Well, because as I had to explain to Paul Krugman, there hasn’t been any genuine austerity in the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. The story in the Telegraph also contains this passage.

The number of people in work rose by 280,000 in the past three months to a record 30.15 million, the biggest quarterly increase in employment on record. Minutes released by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee said that the “tightening in the eligibility requirements for some state benefits might have led to an intensification of job search”. Mr Duncan Smith claimed that the comments were a tacit endorsement of his welfare reform programme. He said the Bank of England, led by Mark Carney, now believed that the welfare reforms had contributed to the dramatic fall in unemployment.

In other words, this Michael Ramirez cartoon is correct. The numbers from the UK are evidence – in addition to all this evidence – that people are more likely to find jobs when they can’t rely on taxpayer handouts.

P.P.P.S. If “poverty porn” changes the political environment, it could mean the end of the Moocher Hall of Fame.

Read Full Post »

What’s the best state in America?

I’m not sure I can answer that broad question, but I can address the more narrow issue of which state has the most economic freedom. Last month, for instance, I shared some data from the Canada-based Fraser Institute which showed that South Dakota was America’s most laissez-faire state, followed by Tennessee, Delaware, Texas, and Virginia (though all of them trailed the Canadian province of Alberta).

And one year ago, I posted about a fascinating Mercatus study that ranked states based on total freedom (including, interestingly, a “bachelor party” variable). That research put North Dakota at the top, followed by South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma.

Now we have another measure of overall economic liberty at the state level. The Texas Public Policy Foundation has put together a “soft tyranny” index that measures total economic oppression, both for the United States and for the 50 states.

As you would suspect, the ranking was constructed with various measures of spending, taxes, and regulation.

Since we’re focusing today on state competitiveness, let’s first look at that data. As you can see, Texas is in the top spot with the lowest burden of government, followed by South Dakota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Tennessee.

Soft Tyranny States
Since South Dakota and Tennessee appear in the top 5 of all measures, I’m guessing that means they are the best states (and it’s presumably no coincidence that they don’t have broad-based income taxes).

Now let’s review the data for the United States.

Probably the most relevant thing to notice is that economic freedom improved during the Reagan and Clinton years, whereas it worsened under Carter, both Bush Administrations, and Obama.

Soft Tyranny USA

And since America’s last two presidents have imposed a larger burden of government, it’s no surprise that the United States has fallen in both major global measures of economic freedom.

P.S. On a totally separate issue, I’m not surprised to learn that Republicans who are philosophically corrupt sometimes are personally corrupt as well.

Read Full Post »

A bunch of well-connected rich people and government officials are descending upon Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

This upsets many people, and perhaps with some justification. After all, bad things often happen when big business and big government intersect.

But some folks reflexively think that wealth is bad and they would like us to believe that the economy is a fixed pie, meaning that the rich have more money because the poor have less money.

If you think I’m exaggerating, check out a new report from Oxfam, a UK-based group that was created to alleviate poverty but has largely morphed into a left-wing pressure group.

The folks at Oxfam complain about the supposed “capture of opportunities by the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes” and that “tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 of the 30 countries.”

Here are some excerpts from a report in the EU Observer.

As the world’s richest and most powerful men and women prepare to meet in the Swiss resort of Davos for the annual World Economic Forum on Wednesday (22 January), the British development charity, Oxfam, has issued a new report on global inequality. According to its findings, the wealth of the world’s 85 richest people – €81.2 trillion – amounts to that of the poorest half of the world population, or 3.5 billion people. …”In Europe, austerity has been imposed on the poor and middle classes under huge pressure from financial markets whose wealthy investors have benefited from state bailouts of financial institutions,” the charity said. Financial deregulation in the US has contributed to the situation, in which the richest one percent of the population has more money than ever since 1933.  …The charity said Davos participants should reverse the trend and pledge to support higher taxes for the rich, while refraining from using their wealth to seek political favours.

There are several parts of this excerpt that deserve attention, including passages that are correct (such as bailouts giving undeserved money to the rich) and passages that are nonsensical (the financial crisis was caused by intervention, not deregulation).

But I want to focus solely on the inequality issue. Let’s assume Oxfam is right and that the world’s 85 richest people have $81.2 trillion of wealth. The group obviously wants us to think this accumulation of wealth is bad and that it somehow comes at the expense of the rest of us.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner hits the nail on the head, explaining that there’s a big difference between honest wealth and riches obtained through government coercion.

…is it a bad thing for a country to have some really rich people? Again, it depends on how they got rich. Sutirtha Bagchi of the University of Michigan’s business school and Jan Svejnar of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs studied how inequality correlates with economic growth. In general, more inequality meant slower growth, and less inequality meant faster growth. But in many countries, over various time periods, growing inequality had no effect on economic growth. The new study suggests that an increase in inequality hurt the economy when the rich were getting rich through political connections. That is, inequality hurts the economy when “a large share of the national wealth is held by a small number of politically connected families,” as the authors put it. …Bagchi and Svenjar took pains to classify political billionaires as narrowly as possible. …The political billionaires were only people who “would not have become a billionaire in the absence of political connections that resulted in favoritism and/or explicit government support.”

The oft-missed lesson here is that undeserving wealth generally is obtained because of big government.

Which reminds me of a very astute observation by a former Cato colleague, who wrote that, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

Carney continues, pointing out that wealth obtained through markets is good. Such success creates a bigger pie and helps boost living standards for everyone.

But wealth achieved via government is cronyism, and that contributes to economic stagnation.

When a country’s wealthiest got wealthy through market means, the resulting inequality has no negative effect on economic growth. This jibes with what we know about free markets. If people can get rich by providing valuable things at good prices, then society will get more valuable things at good prices—and people across the income spectrum benefit. But if people get rich by pocketing subsidies and using the state to crush competitors, then they gained their wealth at the expense of everyone else. Bill Gates became a billionaire by making and selling something that makes regular people more productive and more connected. Buffett got rich largely by providing capital to underfunded but well-run businesses. If Bagchi’s and Svejnar’s findings are correct, then the bottom line is this: Inequality itself doesn’t hurt the economy. Cronyism hurts the economy.

I fully agree with Tim’s analysis, though I would have drawn a distinction between the younger Warren Buffett, who was a savvy investor and the older Buffett, who has climbed into bed with the political elite.

The bottom line is that the poor aren’t poor because of honest rich people. The poor are suffering because of big government, including the cronyism that lines the pockets of dishonest companies and individuals that feed at the public trough.

Unfortunately, many insider leftists are perfectly content with those policies and they use inequality to distract voters from the real problem.

There are honest leftists, of course, and they presumably would be outraged by the sleaze in national capitals. Their problem is that they genuinely think the economic is fixed pie. Or they think that inequality is such a bad thing that they would be willing to reduce incomes for the poor if it meant the rich suffered even more.

If you don’t believe me, watch this marvelous video of Margaret Thatcher debunking the left.

And my old grad school colleague Steve Horwitz also has some very sage observations on income inequality and class warfare.

P.S. In its report on inequality, Oxfam also went after tax havens and said more revenue for government would help reduce poverty.

Oxfam also estimated that €15.5 trillion of the wealth is hidden from the taxman in offshore accounts, at a time when governments are cutting public spending. …tax avoidance by EU and US corporations in Africa is depriving its governments from resources which could be use to fight poverty.

I wrote a study years ago exposing Oxfam’s sloppy methodology on tax competition issues. No wonder they’ve been labeled as being part of the “tax taliban.”

But what really irks me about that passage is the assumption that bigger government reduces poverty. That’s nonsense. The data shows that growth is the best way of helping the poor.

Christie JokeP.S. I wrote yesterday about Chris Christie’s problems in New Jersey. I said his real challenge was the need to reduce the burden of government, not the bridge scandal.

But I’m a sucker for good political humor, so enjoy this image that appeared in my inbox.

P.P.S. Since Oxfam criticized tax havens, I can’t resist calling your attention to my video tutorial on tax competition and tax havens.

Simply stated, we need some external check on the greed of the political class.

Read Full Post »

If you’re a libertarian, you generally don’t act and think like other people. Most folks, when they heard about Governor Christie’s bridge-closing scandal, focused on the potential political ramifications.

But not me. My immediate reaction was to think that the problem could have been avoided if the bridge and its various entry points were privately owned. Sort of like the Ambassador Bridge between Canada and Michigan, which is the busiest border crossing in North America. Or the Progreso International Bridge, a major transportation link between Mexico and Texas.

If the George Washington Bridge also had private owners, they would want to maximize the flow of traffic, not arbitrarily close lanes for petty political purposes. So while others may speculate about Chris Christie and the 2016 presidential race, I daydreamed about how privatized bridges would improve transportation (just as I couldn’t stop myself from pontificating about private fire departments when sharing some libertarian humor).

All that being said, I’m digressing before I even get started. The purpose of today’s column is to focus on the real scandal in New Jersey.

New research from the Mercatus Center looks at cash solvency, budget solvency, long-run solvency, and service-level solvency to show which states are fiscally responsible and which states face serious long-run problems.

And while Chris Christie may have taken a few steps to rein in excessive compensation for state bureaucrats (causing me to become giddy with infatuation), he still has a long way to go because the Garden State is in last place in this comprehensive new ranking of fiscal responsibility.

And that means New Jersey is even behind fiscal hell holes such as California, New York, and Illinois.

Here are the key takeaways from the study, which ranks all 50 states.

This paper contributes to that stream of research by applying models of fiscal condition to create indices measuring cash, budget, long-run, and service-level solvency as well as overall fiscal condition at the state level. It also discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solvency index and provides a ranking — based on these indices and using fiscal year 2012 data — of the 50 US states. …Table 9…shows the state rankings based on fiscal condition with all four dimensions taken into account. …the states at the bottom are there due to years of poor financial management decisions, bad economic conditions, or a combination of both. New Jersey and Illinois face similar problems of tax revenues that have not kept up with expenditures, use of budget practices that only appeared to balance their annual budgets, and significant debt levels as a result of decades of using bonds without being able to pay for them. In addition, both states have underfunded their pension systems, resulting in   billions in unfunded liabilities.

Now let’s take a look at the main chart from the study, showing the ranking for all 50 states.

And I want to focus on the bottom 10, which are a rogue’s gallery of big-government basket cases. New Jersey, as already noted, is in last place, but the next-worst state is Connecticut, which has become a fiscal mess ever since making the horrible mistake of adopting an income tax more than two decades ago.

Mercatus State Fiscal Ranking

Illinois is in 48th place, which is not surprising since the state is infamous for tax-and-spend fiscal policy. Massachusetts is number 47, making it the fourth-worst state…just as it is the fourth-worst state in the Tax Freedom Day rankings.

California is number 46, and I was surprised (given Jerry Brown’s attempts to drive successful people from the state) to read in the study that its fiscal condition actually has gotten better in recent years. And no rating of fiscal irresponsibility is complete without New York, which is in 45th place.

Indeed, you’ll notice that there’s a good bit of overlap between the states at the bottom of the Mercatus study and the “death spiral” states that I shared last year. No wonder taxpayers are fleeing these oppressive jurisdictions.

Likewise, you’ll see that there’s also overlap between the highest-ranking states and the states that have avoided the mistake of imposing an income tax.

And since we’re on the topic of top-ranked states, it is worth noting that five of the top 10 don’t have an income tax, but we should issue a caveat. Both Alaska and Wyoming have a lot of natural resources, so politicians in those states have lots of revenue to spend. Indeed, too much if we believe these numbers showing state debt in Alaska.

And the same is true for North Dakota, which makes the mistake of maintaining an income tax while also collecting a flood of severance tax revenue.

P.S. If you want to further explore state fiscal performance, here are four additional rankings.

P.P.S. I have a confession to make. I’m currently on vacation in Nevis with the PotL. Nevis 3Sounds like an idyllic (albeit very temporary) lifestyle, particularly since it’s cold back in Washington. But every night has been a battle because I can’t figure out how to operate the bloody thermostat. It’s automatically set for 64 degrees, which is far too cold for my tastes, but I don’t know how to change the temperature. It’s a digital device and when I move the temperature up or down, the word “set” starts blinking on the screen, but with no indication of how to actually implement that command. Nevis TempSo I have to get up in the middle of the night and turn the device to “on” or “off” depending on whether I’m too cold or too hot. You may be asking yourself why I don’t inquire with the hotel staff, but that’s not an option. A friend on the island arranged for me to rent a private condo, so there’s nobody I can contact. Sort of reminds me of the time in Slovakia when I couldn’t figure out how to operate a shower, or the time in Switzerland when I was baffled by a toilet. And if I can’t figure out how to operate household fixtures, how on earth will I ever figure out how to shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

Read Full Post »

My favorite Heritage Foundation publication (other than…ahem…my studies on government spending and the flat tax) is the annual Index of Economic Freedom.

Like the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the Index is a broad measure of liberty to engage in voluntary exchange in a system of secure property rights and honest government.

Unfortunately, the United States has been moving in the wrong direction in recent years. As you can see here, here, and here, America used to rank in the top 10. But this chart shows that the United States is now has fallen to number 12 and is considered to be only “Mostly Free.”

Index Ranking 2014

I’m not surprised to see Hong Kong and Singapore at the top of the list, but notice how large of a lead they have over the other four “Free” nations. Their big advantage, if you dig into the details, exists because of relatively low burdens of government spending and comparatively modest tax rates.

Canada’s strong performance shows how a nation can improve with the right reforms.

In the “Mostly Free” section, it’s kind of embarrassing that America is behind Denmark. The United States actually has a slightly better (or, to be more accurate, slightly less worse) fiscal regime (with “Lazy Robert” being the poster child for the welfare state), but Denmark gets very good grades for being very laissez-faire in other regards.

I’m pleased to see, by the way, that Chile and Estonia score reasonably well. Estonia has been a good role model in recent years for fiscal restraint (even if Paul Krugman can’t understand the numbers). Chile, meanwhile, engaged in many pro-growth reforms over the past three decades (though I’m worried the new government may harm the nation’s leading position in Latin America).

You’ll notice that Slovakia isn’t on the list of “Free” or “Mostly Free” nations. That nation suffered a big drop, in part because a socialist government repealed the flat tax. Such a shame.

One of the good things about the Heritage Index is that you can play with the data to compare nations based on particular variable. Here’s a chart showing scores for “government spending” in Europe. Wow, talk about a “red” continent.

Index Europe Spending

Switzerland stands out for being the only advanced nation with a semi-decent score of “Moderately Free,” though that’s nothing to brag about. But when all your neighbors are “Unfree,” you look good by comparison. No wonder Switzerland is in much better shape than France.

P.S. I prefer the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World over the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom, not because I’m an expert on the methodology of the two publications, but for the simple reason that I assume Economic Freedom of the World must be slightly more accurate because, unlike the Heritage Index,  it showed the U.S. score declining during the Bush years.

P.P.S.  I wrote back in 2010 that we shouldn’t fear the supposed Chinese tiger and the new numbers in the Index corroborate what I wrote. China is mired way down in the “Mostly Unfree” category, with a score that puts them in 137th place.

P.P.P.S. If you like global rankings that make no sense, here are some quasi-amusing options.

Read Full Post »

Every so often, I share stories about the ridiculous and outrageous way in which the federal government squanders our money.

So when I saw this New York Post story about the feds pissing away a six-figure sum on condom research, I figured this would be a perfect addition to my collection of government waste stories.

The federal government is stretching your tax dollars — in search of the perfect condom. The National Institutes of Health will spend $224,863 to test 95 “custom-fitted” condoms so every American man can choose the one that fits just right.

And it’s a good match with this story about Washington flushing away more than $400K on research about men not liking to wear condoms.

Do we really need to spend other people’s money to figure out that guys, if they have to wear condoms, would like them to fit?!?

But then I found something in the story that genuinely surprised me. Apparently there are federal regulations that restrict the types of condoms that can be sold in the United States!

The NIH blames US “regulatory guidelines” for American men having to choose from a “narrow range of condom sizes.” The six-figure grant was awarded to TheyFit of Covington, Ga., which offers a wide variety of condoms that vary in length — from a bit more than 3 inches to nearly 9 ¹/₂ — and in width. They’re available in European Union countries, but not in the United States, where they would have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

I’m flabbergasted. I can vaguely understand why the government might regulate some aspects of condom production, such as durability rules to limit breakage. I don’t think such red tape is necessary because companies already plenty of incentive – because of both reputational risk and preemptive legal protection – to maintain good standards.

But at least you can see a rationale for bureaucrats to intervene.

I can’t imagine, though, what excuse regulators came up with when they decided to limit the variety of condom sizes. Maybe this is a literal example of the one-size-fits-all mentality of Washington?

Condom UNAnd isn’t it embarrassing that Europeans have a more market-friendly approach on this issue?

Though none of us should be surprised that the Keystone Cops at the United Nations want to create a human right to obtain taxpayer-financed condoms.

At least Sandra Fluke will be happy about that.

P.S. Here’s a Glenn McCoy cartoon about Obama and subsidized condoms.

P.P.S. Since I started this post with examples of wasteful spending, but then decided that this story might belong in the category of absurd regulation, let’s close by sharing some examples of foolish red tape.

Addendum: A friend with a warped sense of humor emailed to suggest a unflattering link between the condom research and the note left on my windshield right before Christmas. So I can only imagine what my enemies are saying.

Read Full Post »

Washington is in the middle of another debate about redistributing money.

But that’s hardly newsworthy. Politics, after all, is basically a never-ending racket in which insiders buy votes and accumulate power with other people’s money.

The current debate about extending unemployment benefits is remarkable, though (at least from an economic perspective), because certain politicians want to give people money on the condition that they don’t get a job. Needless to say, that leads to a very perverse incentive structure.

There is a problem with joblessness, to be sure, but it’s misguided to think that extending unemployment benefits is the compassionate response.

Senator Paul and I wrote a column for USA Today about a better way of helping the unemployed. Looking at the empirical evidence, we argue that it’s time to unleash the private sector by reducing the burden of government.

We started with an assessment of the labor market, which has been dismal under Obama’s reign.

The nation is enduring the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, 11 million people remain unemployed, and millions more have dropped out of the labor force. For minorities, it’s even worse. The black unemployment rate is more than twice that of whites. And the weak job market means that even those who are employed are having a hard time climbing the economic ladder.

We explain that more unemployment benefits is a misguided approach.

There’s a lot of talk about helping those down on their luck, but there’s a big divide on the best approach. Our view is that America needs a growth agenda based on reducing the burden of government. The unemployed need a strong job market, not endless handouts that create dependency. …There’s an understandable desire in Washington to “do something,” and extending benefits once again certainly is the easy route for policy makers. But if we are serious about keeping workers out of the long-term unemployment trap, we must have a debate about which policies cause unemployment and which policies create jobs.

The column cites many of the academic studies showing that unemployment benefits lead to more joblessness.

I’ve made this point during television interviews, and this Michael Ramirez cartoon echoes our thinking in a more entertaining fashion.

And we definitely can’t overlook this superb Wizard-of-Id parody. It doesn’t focus specifically on unemployment benefits, but it makes a great point about labor supply incentives.

But let’s get back to the column. Our main goal is to identify the types of policies that would generate jobs and growth.

Simply stated, genuine compassion should be defined by helping people get back to work so they don’t need to be wards of the state.

And easing the burden of government is the best way to make that happen. Our column looks at some evidence – from both overseas and here at home – about the policies that are associated with better economic performance.

Big government is responsible for today’s unemployment situation. …Since President Obama was elected, we have spent $560 billion on unemployment benefits. It’s likely many more jobs would have been created had the government not diverted that money from the economy’s productive sector. …Instead of copying stagnant European nations with bigger public sectors, we should learn from countries that have achieved better performance by lowering the burden of government. Singapore and Hong Kong are examples of jurisdictions with small governments and free markets that enjoy strong and sustained growth with very low levels of joblessness. …look at Canada, which has significantly boosted its jobs market with pro-growth reforms, or Switzerland, which has cemented its traditionally strong labor markets with reforms to control the growth of government. This is not a partisan argument. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The United States enjoyed strong levels of job creation during both the Reagan and Clinton years. But in both cases, public policy was largely the same, featuring an increase in economic freedom.

Some people may wonder whether Reagan and Clinton belong in the same category.

Well, as illustrated by this chart, they both presided over periods with impressive job creation.

And they both presided over periods with generally good economic policy.

Reagan moved the country in the right direction on purpose. Clinton, by contrast, may have wanted to move the nation in the other direction, but he was unsuccessful. Indeed, the evidence is very strong that the overall burden of government fell during his tenure.

Whether by accident or design, America needs another period of free markets and shrinking government.

For further details on the recipe for good policy, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which explains the conditions that lead to strong and sustained growth.

P.S. I’m obviously a fan of Senator Rand Paul. Not only does he choose good people as op-ed partners, he also gave me public credit for a good Obamacare joke.

P.P.S. On a separate topic, I wrote in December 2012 that the strongest evidence for media bias is which stories get covered. A perfect example is that journalists already have given 17 times as much coverage of the Chris Christie “bridgegate” scandal as they gave to the IRS scandal over the past six months.

Read Full Post »

One of my most widely read – but also most depressing – articles was from about two years ago and it exposed the fact that Washington, DC, is now the nation’s richest region.

I explained that Washington is rich because of unearned wealth. Almost all of the loot that winds up in the pockets of highly paid lobbyists, contractors, bureaucrats, politicians, cronyists, and other insiders ultimately comes from taxpayers in the rest of the country.

That’s why we should be angry that a majority of the nation’s richest counties surrounded DC. A region that produces almost nothing manages to live fat and happy because of the coercive power of government.

That’s the kind of income inequality that should be eliminated, and I do my best to fan the flames of resentment in this interview about fat-cat contractors getting big bucks from taxpayers.

All these well-paid contractors are – for all intents and purposes – members of the government workforce. Sort of a shadow bureaucracy that is several times larger than the official count. They get paid by our tax dollars and their jobs exist because of government.

This doesn’t mean all those jobs should be abolished. But, like their official bureaucrat cousins, many contractors are engaged in wasteful and superfluous activities, and almost all of them are paid too much.

By the way, I disagree with Ms. Brian when she claimed in the interview that you don’t find bureaucrats living in “McMansions.” As my Cato colleague Chris Edwards has documented, federal workers get a far larger amount of compensation than people working in the economy’s productive sector.

Heck, even the Washington Post has published stories about bureaucrats living in“a leafy section of Fairfax County where houses sell in the $700,000 range.”

Let’s close today’s post with some good news. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, Washington is now home to “only” 8 of the nation’s 15-richest counties.

That’s a small step in the right direction and it almost surely happened because government spending has been restrained for the past two fiscal years. And when government doesn’t grow, that means less loot for those that have learned to milk the system.

It’s amazing how many good things happen if you reduce the burden of government spending!

P.S. This interview was filmed right before Christmas, so I engaged in some sartorial excess. If you like the red jacket, other attempts to be on the cutting edge of fashion can be seen here and here.

Read Full Post »

Some things in life are very dependable. Every year, for instance, the swallows return to Capistrano.

And you can also count on Dan Mitchell to wax poetic about the looming collapse of French statism.

Back in 2011, I said France was engaged in economic self-destruction.

In September 2012, I wrote that it was time to start the countdown for France’s fiscal crisis.

In October of that year, I pontificated about France’s looming fiscal suicide.

Last April, I warned that the fuse was burning on France’s fiscal time bomb.

In June of 2013, I stated that the looters and moochers in France were running out of victims to plunder.

And in October of last year, I expounded on France’s economic death spiral.

Geesh, looking at that list, I guess I’m guilty of – in the words of Paul Krugman – being part of the “plot against France” by trying to discredit that nation’s economy.

Or maybe I’m just ahead of my time because we’re now seeing articles that almost sound like they could have been written by me appearing in establishment outlets such as Newsweek. Check out some amazing excerpts from an article by Janine di Giovanni, who lives in France and serves as the magazine’s Middle East Editor.

…what is happening today in France is being compared to the revocation of 1685. …the king closed churches and persecuted the Huguenots. As a result, nearly 700,000 of them fled France, seeking asylum in England, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa and other countries. The Huguenots, nearly a million strong before 1685, were thought of as the worker bees of France. They left without money, but took with them their many and various skills. They left France with a noticeable brain drain.

It’s happening again, except this time the cause is fiscal persecution rather than religious persecution. French politicians have changed the national sport from soccer to taxation!

Since the arrival of Socialist President François Hollande in 2012, income tax and social security contributions in France have skyrocketed. The top tax rate is 75 percent, and a great many pay in excess of 70 percent. As a result, there has been a frantic bolt for the border by the very people who create economic growth – business leaders, innovators, creative thinkers, and top executives. They are all leaving France to develop their talents elsewhere.

It’s an exaggeration to say “they are all leaving,” but France is turning Atlas Shrugged from fiction to reality.

“Au revoir, bloodsuckers”

Many of the nation’s most capable people are escaping – ranging from movie stars to top entrepreneurs.

What I find most amusing is that France’s parasitical political elite is whining and complaining that these people won’t remain immobile so they can be plundered.

And when the people who have the greatest ability leave, that has an impact on economic performance – and ordinary people are the ones who suffer the most.

…the past two years have seen a steady, noticeable decline in France. There is a grayness that the heavy hand of socialism casts. It is increasingly difficult to start a small business when you cannot fire useless employees and hire fresh new talent. Like the Huguenots, young graduates see no future and plan their escape to London. The official unemployment figure is more than 3 million; unofficially it’s more like 5 million.

The article also gives some details that will help you understand why the tax burden is so stifling. Simply stated, the government is far too big and pays for things that should not be even remotely connected to the public sector.

Part of this is the fault of the suffocating nanny state. …As a new mother, I was surprised at the many state benefits to be had if you filled out all the forms: Diapers were free; nannies were tax-deductible; free nurseries existed in every neighborhood. State social workers arrived at my door to help me “organize my nursery.” …The French state also paid for all new mothers, including me, to see a physical therapist twice a week to get our stomachs toned again.

Government-subsidized “toned” stomachs. Hey, maybe big government isn’t all bad. Sort of reminds me of the taxpayer-financed boob jobs in the United Kingdom (British taxpayers also pay for sex trips to Amsterdam).

More seriously, all the wasteful spending in France erodes the work ethic and creates a perverse form of dependency.

I had friends who belonged to trade unions, which allowed them to take entire summers off and collect 55 percent unemployment pay. From the time he was an able-bodied 30-year-old, a cameraman friend worked five months a year and spent the remaining seven months collecting state subsidies from the comfort of his house in the south of France. Another banker friend spent her three-month paid maternity leave sailing around Guadeloupe – as it is part of France, she continued to receive all the benefits. Yet another banker friend got fired, then took off nearly three years to find a new job, because the state was paying her so long as she had no job. “Why not? I deserve it,” she said when I questioned her. “I paid my benefits into the system.”

So what’s the bottom line? Well, the author sums up the issue quite nicely.

…all this handing out of money left the state bankrupt. …The most brilliant minds of France are escaping to London, Brussels, and New York rather than stultify at home. …“The best thinkers in France have left the country. What is now left is mediocrity.” From a chief legal counsel at a major French company: “France is dying a slow death. Socialism is killing it…”

As the old saying goes, this won’t end well. Maybe France will suffer a Greek-style meltdown, but perhaps it will “merely” suffer long-run stagnation and decline.

Which is a shame because France is a beautiful country and is ranked as one of the best places to live if you happen to already have a considerable amount of hard-to-tax wealth (and the French also were ranked among the top-10 most attractive people).

But bad government can screw up a country, even if it does have lots of natural advantages.

And that’s exactly what generations of French politicians have done to France. The tax system has become so bad that more than 8,000 French households had to pay more than 100 percent of their income to the government in 2012.

The French government has announced, by the way, that it intends to cap taxes so that no household ever pays more than 80 percent to the state. Gee, how merciful, particularly since the French President has echoed America’s Vice President and asserted that it’s patriotic to pay higher taxes.

That’s why I’ll stand by my prediction that President Obama will never be able to make America as bad as France. Heck, France has such a bad approach on taxes that Obama has felt compelled to oppose some of that country’s statist initiatives.

P.S. The prize for silliest example of government intervention in France goes to the law that makes it a crime to insult your spouse’s personal appearance.

P.P.S. The big puzzle is why the French put up with so much statism. Polling data from both 2010 and 2013 shows strong support for smaller government, and an astounding 52 percent of French citizens said they would consider moving to the United States if they got the opportunity. So why, then, do they elect statists such as Sarkozy and Hollande?!?

Read Full Post »

America desperately needs genuine entitlement reform to avoid a Greek-style fiscal future.

The biggest problems are the health entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, but Social Security also has a huge long-run fiscal shortfall.

That’s why I’m a big fan of the very successful reforms in places such as Chile and Australia, where personal accounts are producing big benefits for workers. These systems also boost national economies since they generate higher savings rather than added unfunded liabilities.

And I’m very happy that we now have more than 30 nations with personal accounts, even tiny little jurisdictions such as the Faroe Islands.

But many statists object to reform, presumably because they don’t want workers to become capitalists. They apparently prefer to make people dependent on government.

Not all leftists take that narrow and cramped approach, however. Some academics at Boston College, for instance, produced some research showing some big benefits from Australia’s private Social Security system.

And new we have some remarkable admissions about how minorities are net losers from Social Security in a study from the left-leaning Urban Institute.

We use historical and projected data from 1970 to 2040 to measure the ratio of old age, survivors, and disability insurance (OASDI) benefits received to taxes paid by members of each race or ethnicity each year. This measure captures the transfers that occur in a given year from current workers to current beneficiaries of each group. We then examine benefit-tax ratios for each race or ethnicity into the future to determine how these redistributions will play out in the coming years. Our conclusion: When considered across many decades—historically, currently, and in the near future—Social Security redistributes from Hispanics, blacks, and other people of color to whites.

Why does the program have this perverse form of redistribution?

On average, blacks are more likely to be low income and short lived and are less likely to marry than whites. …Given this, one would expect forced annuitization and auxiliary benefits related to marriage and divorce to redistribute from blacks to whites.

And that’s exactly what the research found.

…whites have clearly received a disproportionate share of benefits relative to the taxes that they pay in at a point in time. Their benefit-to-tax ratio has been higher than that of blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups for as long as the system has existed, while projections continue that trend at least for decades to come.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how different races have fared in terms of taxes paid and benefits received.

Social Security by Race - Urban Institute

In other words, if folks on the left really cared about minorities, they would be among the biggest advocates of genuine reform.

By the way, it’s also worth noting that Social Security is a bad deal for everyone. The Urban Institute study simply investigates who loses the most.

And the system is getting worse for every new generation.

Recent studies have also documented how different generations are treated within Social Security, with succeeding generations achieving successively lower “returns” on their contributions.

This helps explain why the evidence shows personal retirement accounts are superior – even for folks who would have retired at the peak of the recent financial crisis.

Here’s my video on why we should replace the bankrupt tax-and-transfer Social Security system with personal retirement accounts.

P.S. You can enjoy some Social Security cartoons herehere, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke, though it’s not overly funny when you realize it’s a depiction of reality.

P.P.S. Thanks to Social Security, I made a $16 trillion mistake in a TV debate. Fortunately, it didn’t really change the outcome since I was understating the fiscal shortfall of the current system.

Read Full Post »

Let’s start 2014 with a depressing story about the reprehensible way in which big companies get in bed with big government.

If asked to list the example of cronyism that I find most nauseating, the Export-Import Bank would be at the top of my list.

The Obamacare handouts for Big Insurance and Big Pharma obviously belong on the list as well.

But don’t forget the corrupt TARP giveaways to Wall Street, the handouts for GM (though at least we got some good parody from that farce), the corrupt H&R Block collusion with the IRS, and the sleazy ethanol handouts to agribusinesses.

We could list more examples, but let’s look at something from today’s newspapers. We normally think of the light-bulb ban as silly environmentalism, but the invaluable Tim Carney writes in the Washington Examiner that the real impetus was from corrupt companies.

Say goodbye to the regular light bulb this New Year. …Starting Jan. 1, the famous bulb is illegal to manufacture in the U.S., and it has become a fitting symbol for the collusion of big business and big government.

Tim explains how companies worked the political system.

People often assume green regulations like this represent the triumph of environmental activists trying to save the plant. That’s rarely the case, and it wasn’t here. Light bulb manufacturers whole-heartedly supported the efficiency standards. General Electric, Sylvania and Philips — the three companies that dominated the bulb industry — all backed the 2007 rule… The lighting industry was the main reason the legislation was moving. …“Philips formed a coalition with environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council to push for higher standards.”

Equally important, Tim explains why the companies thought cronyism was an effective way to line their pockets with undeserved wealth.

Competitive markets with low costs of entry have a characteristic that consumers love and businesses lament: very low profit margins. GE, Philips and Sylvania dominated the U.S. market in incandescents, but they couldn’t convert that dominance into price hikes. Because of light bulb’s low material and manufacturing costs, any big climb in prices would have invited new competitors to undercut the giants — and that new competitor would probably have won a distribution deal with Wal-Mart. So, simply the threat of competition kept profit margins low on the traditional light bulb. …the bulb-makers turned to government. Philips teamed up with NRDC. GE leaned on its huge lobbying army — the largest in the nation — and soon they were able to ban the low-profit-margin bulbs.

The better alternative, needless to say, is freedom.

There is a middle ground between everyone using traditional bulbs and traditional bulbs being illegal. It’s called free choice: Let people choose if they want more efficient and expensive bulbs. Maybe they’ll chose LEDs for some purposes and cheap bulbs for others. But consumer choice is no good either for nanny-staters or companies seeking high profit margins.

Reading Tim’s piece, it makes me wonder what sleaze was involved in the rules forcing us to use inferior washing machines.

P.S. Here are my 10 most-viewed posts of 2013.

*Last January, I shared some gun control humor and readers must like mocking the gun grabbers because that post easily got the most views.

*And in October, Libertarian Jesus racked up the second-highest number of views.

*Interestingly, the third most-viewed post was one from 2012. I guess you won’t be surprised to learn it was another example of gun control humor.

*We also go into the archives – back to 2011 – for the post with the fourth-highest number of views. It’s the classic set of cartoons about the rise and fall of the welfare state.

*Another oldie came in fifth place with this 2012 post featuring – you guessed it – gun control humor.

*In sixth place, we get some 2012 lessons on how a story about beer can be used to explain the failures of class warfare tax policy.

*We finally see another 2013 post with our revelation about the most free-market “state” in North America.

*But then we return to 2011 because lots of people waited until 2013 before reading the classroom experiment with socialism.

*In ninth place, you can read a libertarian fantasy from last April.

*Rounding out the top 10 is a celebration of Obama’s biggest fiscal defeat.

My favorite post of the year, for what it’s worth, reveals my fiscal wonkiness.

Read Full Post »

One year ago, I looked at the worst policy developments of 2012.

I had some very good (or should I say bad?) options for that award, including the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, the IRS’s lawless decision to make American banks act as tax collectors for foreign governments, Japan’s higher VAT tax, the California vote for a class-warfare tax hike, and France’s 75 percent income tax rate.

I ultimately decided, perhaps for selfishly sentimental reasons, that the worst development was repeal of the flat tax in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

We’re going to do the same exercise this year, but the glass is going to be half full. Not only will we look at the worst policy developments of 2013, but we’ll also list the best policy developments of the year.

And because I try to be optimistic, we’ll start with the good news.

But remember the rules. We’re looking at policy rather than politics. I know, for instance, that one of my favorite posts in 2013 was the one about Reagan crushing Obama in a hypothetical matchup, but that’s obviously not a policy development.

So what are my choices?

Potential examples of good news include the fact that very little legislation was enacted during the year, the sequester (while it lasted), the overwhelming rejection of class-warfare tax policy in Colorado, and the government shutdown.

Those are all good options, but I think these three developments rank the highest.

1. Obamacare – You’re probably thinking I’m on drugs since Obamacare is listed as good news, but bear with me because I’m engaging in some one-step-backwards-two-steps-forward analysis. More specifically, I think the President’s signature “achievement” has done more than anything else in recent years to discredit big government. I also think the flop of Obamacare has rejuvenated interest in – and support for – the types of policies that would make health care system more affordable and efficient. I’ve always feared that undoing the damage of government intervention in the health sector was our most intractable challenge, but Obama may have given us a path forward and that is worth celebrating. By the way, the Detroit bankruptcy is good news for the same reason. Maybe, just maybe, some people will learn the right lessons when statist policies spectacularly fail.

2. The defeat of pro-gun control politicians in Colorado – I don’t think many people will argue when I say that nothing matters more to politicians than getting reelected. And that’s why I am so happy that two Colorado state senators were kicked out of office because of their votes to impose gun control. And that was then followed by the resignation of another state senator who wanted to avoid the same fate. There aren’t many certainties in life, but I can assure you that pro-gun control politicians all across the nation noticed what happened to these Colorado thugs and are now much less likely to push anti-second amendment initiatives. More broadly, we can feel somewhat optimistic that the right to keep and bear arms has never been in a stronger political position.

3. Spending restraint – This hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves, but the federal budget in 2013 was actually smaller than the federal budget in 2012. And I’m using honest math, not the Washington approach of calling an increase a cut because the budget might have grown even faster. Indeed, the nation actually has enjoyed a two-year spending slowdown that substantially reduced government spending as a share of GDP. In other words, my Golden Rule was in effect! If we could maintain this approach for a few more years, we’d quickly have a balanced budget and hopefully kill off any pressure for tax hikes.

Feel free, by the way, to offer your suggestions in the comment section. Maybe the best news of 2013 was something that I neglected to cover.

Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger.

Potential bad news stories might include the IMF coercing/bribing Albania to get rid of its flat tax, the easy-money policies of the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, the 100th anniversary of the income tax, the global shift to higher tax rates, the seemingly permanent drop in the employment-population ratio, and the fiscal cliff tax hike from last January 1.

Geesh, that’s a depressing list. But there are three options – in my humble opinion – that are even worse.

1. Obamacare – I realize I listed Obamacare as one of the best developments of 2013, but it also has to be one of the worst. The legislation is a toxic stew of spending, taxes, regulation, cronyism, and intervention, and it was based on the absurd theory that you solve government-caused problems by adding even more government. And even though Obamacare has discredited big government and opened the door to real reform, we can’t dismiss the possibility that the law will survive and created more dependency.

2. Erosion of the Rule of Law – One of the defining features of a civilized society is the rule of law. Heck, even if laws are bad, it’s still important for people to know that there are rules and that the government is constrained by those rules. That’s the basic difference between the developed world and the types of despotic rule you find in developing nations (with Argentina being a tragic example). Unfortunately, the Obama White House seems to think that it can arbitrarily change laws or ignore laws simply based on the President’s ideological whims or political needs. This has happened over and over again with Obamacare, but the problem extends to many other issues.

3. Murray-Ryan budget deal – Since I thought the sequester was one of the good things that happened in 2013, you won’t be surprised that a law designed to evade the sequester would make the list of bad policy developments. The budget pact between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray allowed more short-term spending, much of it financed by back-door tax hikes. I’m the first to admit that the spending hikes and tax increases were relatively small compared to the size of the federal Leviathan, but what’s really depressing about the Murray-Ryan deal is that it probably sets the stage for future bad agreements. And this Charlie Brown cartoon shows what frequently happens when Republicans and Democrats decide to negotiate on fiscal policy.

Once again, feel free to offer your suggestions for the worst development of 2013.

On a more personal note, I’m happy to report that I don’t think there were any noteworthy bad developments in my life. Other than getting another year older, which isn’t any fun.

I can,however, report a couple of good developments for the year, including the Princess of the Levant and some better performance on the softball field.

And in the I’m-not-sure-how-to-react category, my favorite daughter got engaged this year. I’m worried this may eventually lead to marriage. And then children.

Which would make me a grandfather, and I’d like to think that I’m much too young for anyone to call me Grandpa!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,285 other followers

%d bloggers like this: